CIOs and Elected Officials: Strategies for Better Communications

CIOs must engage politicians in regular conversations on IT.

by / August 15, 2008

This article is an excerpt from an upcoming feature, the full version of which will appear this fall in Public CIO magazine and Web site.

It's not always easy getting politicians to discuss IT. Some elected officials have virtually no technological knowledge, or receive their IT information from misleading sources; they tend to focus on the cost rather than the value of IT initiatives; they are focused on other interests; and by the time they've started to better understand IT, their term limits are up.

However, despite these difficulties, it is crucial for government CIOs to engage politicians in regular conversations on IT. Their influence over money and policy makes them invaluable for the development of technology initiatives. Below is a list of strategies to help keep public officials involved in any government IT enterprise.

Skip the Nuts and Bolts
CIO of Harris County, Texas, Steve Jennings stated, a CIO needs to be a "good interpreter." Rather than using "techno-speak," focusing on the technological details of an IT initiative, CIOs should use "business-speak," focusing instead on the benefits of the initiative. By concentrating on a particular issue, such as how the enterprise will save money or provide better service, elected officials will be more apt to listen to what CIOs have to say.

Cut Out Distractions
Politicians are extremely busy people, with a variety of tasks to do and people to communicate with. In order to keep them focused on what you have to say, one helpful strategy is to get elected officials away from their usual environment. As Jennings explained, that usually means getting them "away from their phone" and into a "collegial" environment.

Make Allies
Because it's important to focus on the business value of IT initiatives, one helpful strategy is to have the person who owns the business process become spokesperson for the initiative. For example, CIO of San Antonio Richard Varn explained, "a new e-recruitment tool should be led by the HR department. And a new e-procurement tool implementation should be led by the purchasing department."

Employers from the private sector can also make helpful allies. Fairfax County, Va.'s Board of Supervisors even created a committee of citizens with private- and public-sector IT backgrounds that advises the board and the IT Department. Finally, forging relationships with those politicians interested in IT will provide CIOs with important alliances and add credibility to any IT project.

Think Like an Elected Official
CIOs need to foresee any possible objections to a proposed IT project or expenditure. By anticipating how a project will appear to the press and the public, CIOs and their staffs can overcome these objections before officials point them out. Another way to think like an elected official is to stay in touch with issues that legislators and citizens care about, in order to harness technology to address those concerns.

Build Communications Channels
Establishing regular communications to interact with elected officials is key, according to Fairfax County's Chief Technology Officer Wanda Gibson. CIOs can build a number of communications channels into the IT governance structure to stay in contact with politicians. In Fairfax County, the IT Department holds one-on-one talks with board members to learn about their particular interests, as well as quarterly meetings with the board to talk more specifically about technology use. In Colorado, IT consultant John May and CIO Michael Locatis are planning an IT blog to discuss IT projects. Keeping multiple lines of communication open will help establish an open dialog between the IT department and officeholders.

Treat Them as Team Members
According to Phil Montgomery of the Wisconsin State Assembly, CIOs need to treat politicians as IT team members, keeping them informed and showing them the challenges the IT department faces. "You have to have that relationship with legislators that are willing to delve into this, and establish that layer of trust," Montgomery says.

The Bottom Line
Through open communication, thinking like a politician, a focus on the business side of IT, and the proper alliances, CIOs can gain the crucial support of public officials.

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer
Platforms & Programs